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Crisis, what crisis? MPs must help tackle sleep disorder problems now

Community pharmacists cannot hold the frontline in the battle against sleep disorders on their own, warns Adrian Zacher

The prevalence of sleep disorders and insufficient sleep in the UK has now reached crisis levels, impacting individuals' wellbeing and imposing significant pressures on society. Sleep issues have emerged as a major public health concern, with substantial societal costs.

Indeed, according to recent estimates, sleep disorders cost the UK an astounding £34 billion per year. These costs are incurred through lost productivity, healthcare expenditure and increased accident risks. The impact of insufficient sleep extends beyond health, affecting economic productivity and workplace performance.

For example, obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is particularly prevalent among women experiencing menopause and perimenopause, affecting their daily activities and work performance. Sadly, OSA symptom assessments need to catch up with this gender difference.

Read more: Now is the time for community pharmacy to help patients with sleep disorders

Pharmacists identify people who would benefit from further investigation and refer them appropriately. So it’s high time the frontline role of community pharmacy was recognised as such. Bluntly, this means putting an end to unpaid consultations, which I am concerned will only increase with the current iteration of the England-wide Pharmacy First proposal put forward by the government.

Something I feel strongly about is over-the-counter (OTC) supposed sleep aids. Sedating antihistamines are explicitly not recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Having spoken with pharmacy teams, they’re keen to offer alternatives, citing hostile customers and no access to alternatives such as cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi). Something must change. Community pharmacy teams do not need this abuse.

Read more: Supporting patients to sleep better

Staying with insomnia, putting a stop to inappropriate medical interventions is also a priority. For pharmacy teams, this means questioning the inappropriate use of z-drugs. As pharmacists well know, the use of acute medicines long term harms patients. Access to alternative treatment options should be available – yet the system is broken. 

One hand doesn’t appear to know what the other hand is doing. That is why we have to get politicians involved. I am working with the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for sleep taskforce to improve recognition of pharmacy teams, which plays a critical role in the healthcare system, often acting as the first point of contact for patients with sleep issues who are seeking advice and treatment options.

By facilitating the differential assessment of sleep disorders in community pharmacies, ending the postcode lottery access to effective treatments like CBTi, ending inappropriate medical interventions, providing pharmacists with a wider, evidence-based range of options, and enhancing public information, meaningful progress can be made. This will only empower pharmacy teams.

Read more: Why it's vital to talk to customers about sleep

The route to success I advocated at the recent APPG meeting was to provide pharmacy teams with evidence-based training on sleep disorders and develop their clinical role for patients seeking help with sleep disorder symptoms.

MPs need to understand that we must meet people where they are seeking help for their sleep issues. This should be in a community pharmacy.

Adrian Zacher is CEO of The British Society of Pharmacy Sleep Services and a member of the APPG for sleep taskforce

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